Download the book – free

The Light Ships cover A

The next Light Ships event will be held this Saturday, 22 November, at Wrangle Church.

The main book launch, with a screening of a wonderful old film of Boston in 1943, will be at 3.00pm – but do come a bit earlier if you can, to see the exhibition and enjoy being in one of the Fenland’s loveliest churches. From 2.00pm there’ll be refreshments and an organ recital by Tony Fitt-Savage, who was organist at Sandringham for almost 40 years.

From today, The Light Ships is also available as a free download. It is a PDF file, which most computers can open with a programme like Acrobat Reader. It can be enlarged on screen for easier reading, or printed out. There are two versions: the low-resolution file takes less time to download, but the high-res file has better quality pictures. Click on the links below to save the file to your computer.

Copies of the printed books will be available on Saturday at Wrangle and the following Saturday, 29 November, at Gosberton, where the launch coincides with the church’s seasonal Christmas Tree Festival. From 1 December 2014, you can also buy copies for £5 plus postage from Transported:

Transported

Holbeach St. Marks Community Association Building,

Sluice Road, Holbeach St. Marks, Lincolnshire PE12 8HF

Phone 01406 701006 Email TransportedLauren@litc.org.uk

Books will also be available through the churches included, with all proceeds will go to church funds or supporting future arts opportunities in Boston Borough and South Holland District.

The Light Ships Book

Poetry, film and the strangeness of the recent past

A Passion for Churches (1974)2

What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky,

Without church towers to recognise you by?

John Betjeman, A Passion for Churches (1974)

It’s impossible not to look at and write about English village churches without the presence of John Betjeman. Although he will be remembered as a highly original poet, and was widely appreciated as such in his lifetime, it was his television films that made Betjeman such a recognisable figure in the 1960s and 1970s. Made in television’s salad days, before its executives thought they knew what was good, these are highly personal portraits of places and things that Betjeman loved: the seaside, trains, architecture and, repeatedly, churches.

One of the best, A Passion for Churches, is about Norfolk’s churches and it can be watched on the BBC iPlayer. In it Betjeman visits some wonderful places: Trunch, Sandringham (where Tony Fitt-Savage was organist at the time), Cley-next-the Sea.

But it’s the people who steal the show: the mothers with their children at a Wednesday afternoon Sunday School; the young couple getting married (he went on to be a Bishop of Manchester). He meets the Chaplain of the Broads, chugging about on a boat to greet the holidaymakers, a vicar dedicated to his model railway and another going out to see the men on the Smith’s Point Light Ship. There’s 6am Easter service on the quay at Lowestoft with a Salvation Army band, people singing hymns in the wind and sun. And there’s Billy West, a bellringer for 60 years, saying:

Ah that’s music in your ear, that’s music in the ear. Once that gets hold of you, I suppose that’s like smoking cigarettes; once that gets hold of you that, that’s a drug: you can’t get rid of it. There’s something about it, I don’t know what it is, but you’d go anywhere for it. If there weren’t somewhere where there were some bells I’d go crazy, I know I should. Bells are life to me. I mean, it never seems Sunday to me if we don’t hear the bells.

But it’s hearing the Norfolk in Mr West’s voice that gives that statement its poetry.

A Passion for Churches (1974)8

 

And poetry runs throughout the film as Betjeman shifts easily from prose to verse in a way no one would dare to do today.

And should we let the poor old churches die?

Do the stones speak? My word, of course they do.

Here in the midst of life they cry aloud:

’You’ve used us to build houses for your prayer;

You’ve left us here to die beside the road.’

 

Christ, son of God, come down to me and save:

How fearful and how final seems the grave.

Only through death and resurrection come;

Only from shadows can we see the light;

Only at our lowest comes the gleam:

Help us, we’re all alone and full of fear.

Drowning, we stretch our hands to you for aid

And wholly unexpectedly you come:

Most tolerant and all embracing church.

A Passion for Churches was made forty years ago. It’s not just the clothes and plummy voices that seem to belong to another age. Such public statements of belief would cause embarrassment in public life today. It’s Philip Larkin’s post-religious ‘Church Going’ rather than Betjeman’s faith that fits the tenor of the age.

Nothing is more remote than the recent past: not yet history but how we were is already unthinkably strange. Thus we live and pass and all that we believe to be normal is just more of the vast oddity of human beings.

In some churches all prayer has ceased.

St. Benedict’s, Norwich, is a tower alone.

But better let it stand

A lighthouse beckoning to a changing world.

A Passion for Churches (1974)4

Access to churches

Asgarby church2

A baking July afternoon in Lincolnshire. Everything feels flattened under the heat: sheep, crops, fields. The houses I pass are quiet as if people are waiting for the cool of evening to come out of doors. A wrong turn has brought me to Asgarby, a village I’ve never seen: a few houses and a lovely church sheltered by trees as they so often are in the English countryside. I pull over and walk down the lane to the iron gate of the churchyard; a little wooden sign says ‘welcome’. But, with disappointment, I find the church locked. At least the windows are low and filled with clear glass, so I get tantalizing glimpses of the lovely, light-filled interior through the spider webs. But it’s not the same as being able to sit in the cool stone for a few minutes before going on my way.

Unattended churches are vulnerable to thefts, though perhaps less than they once were thanks to modern security measures. At greatest risk, according to statistics published by Lincolnshire Police, are personal property (such as mobile phones), equipment found in the community spaces now common in churches, and building materials – above all lead. Last Friday night, five strips of lead were stolen from the roof of Gedney church. It’s a distressing blow to any church community and the repairs will cost far more than the stolen metal will fetch. But the church being locked made no difference.

Since 2001, both Labour and Conservative governments have made free admission to national museums a point of principle. It’s certainly one mark of a civilised society that its major public museums are open to all. But not everyone can get to the V&A, Tate or the British Museum to see the nation’s treasures. It may be free to get in, but getting to the entrance is not.

There is great art in every part of the country though: in England’s historic churches. These buildings are among the oldest and finest we have. They are treasure-houses of sculpture, stained glass, metalwork, painting and other forms of art, where elite and everyday tastes claim legitimacy in a cultural negotiation that has left its trace over centuries. And they are freely accessible. When they are not locked.

Simon Jenkins describes the parish churches as a vast, dispersed museum of England: I think they are different and more interesting than that, but I know what he means. They are immensely valuable places in so many ways and they belong to all of us.

So perhaps the Department of Culture, Media and Sport could find a way to help ensure that more of them are open, to more people, more often. There’s the Heritage Lottery Fund, minister’s will say – but they haven’t spoken, as I have, to elderly people who have struggled with the forms only to be turned down, twice. A government-backed insurance scheme might be one form of assistance, but there are undoubtedly others. A little imaginative help to the communities who use and cherish these buildings, for themselves and for the nation, could make a simple by substantial difference to people’s everyday access to their artistic heritage.

Asgarby church9

An ancient tradition in an ancient church

Bicker Church

Today is Bicker’s Gift Day, when parishioners and others are invited to visit and support the church. Gift days are traditionally held close to a church’s Patronal Day – the feast day of the saint to whom the building is dedicated. In Bicker’s case that is St Swithun, a slightly obscure but much venerated Bishop of Winchester in the ninth century.

The dedication to a Saxon saint underlines Bicker’s ancient origins: formerly a harbour and – like Wrangle – prosperous centre of salt-production, the village was already substantial when the Domesday Book was compiled. The scale and quality of the 12th century nave of St Swithun’s church – of which only a part survives – is impressive, even among the Fenland’s fine churches, and deserves to be better known.

 

 

Like pearls on a string

Boston from Whaplode
Boston Stump, seen from Whaplode Church across fields that once were marsh and sea

When you climb onto the roof of Whaplode church tower – which requires some acrobatics, these days – you get a breathtaking view of the Lincolnshire fenlands, as far north as Boston, 12 miles away, where the Stump rises on the horizon.

Moulton from Whaplode 2
Moulton, with the windmill and spire, seen from Whaplode Church

To the west, is the spire of Moulton, a mile away as the crows fly, half an hour on foot. Four miles further on, Spalding church can be seen. If Pinchbeck people had added a spire to their church tower, you’d see that too (but given the alarming angle at which it leans, they were probably wise to restrain their ambitions).

Holbeach from Whaplode
Holbeach church, seen from Whaplode Church

To the east, barely two miles from Whaplode, is Holbeach, then Fleet, Gedney and Sutton St. Mary (Long Sutton) on the edge of the old marshlands separating Lincolnshire from Norfolk. It’s 14 miles from Spalding to Sutton, along the road that marks where sand banks once separated freshwater fen from saltwater marsh. Those 14 miles are studded by eight churches as fine as you could wish to see, each one vying to match, if not outshine, its neighbour. It must have been impressive to reach Whaplode by boat in 1300, and see this line of towers and spires marking the shoreline of England: here was a rich and confident land. Now, the parishes of Whaplode and Moulton have been combined into a single benefice, with Moulton Chapel and Holbeach St Johns. For the first time in a thousand years, these close but independent communities will be served by a single minister. With the recent appointment of the Rev. Julie Timings a new chapter of shared fellowship begins, though the pride in local identity that created each of these unique churches will surely not diminish.

My thanks to everyone I met at Whaplode on Friday and particularly to Roy Willingham for his help in organising the day.

Aspiring ingenuity

Gosberton tower and spire

The idea of looking at churches with new eyes is at the heart of The Light Ships. Unless you were brought up in another faith or a different part of the world, churches are such a familiar part of the English cultural landscape that their strangeness is all but invisible. All these arrows pointing at the sky, the spires that give the project its name, are so commonplace  – but what an extraordinary thing to build.

Unlike skyscrapers like the Shard, they have no monetary purpose. Their value is immaterial. And yet, they are massive physical presences. Tons and tons of stone, quarried, ferried, carted, hauled, carved, winched, set and finally billed.

For all that, it’s never occurred to me to wonder what was inside those stone needles. When you walk under towers, you see a ceiling, sometimes beautifully vaulted in stone, like this one at Gosberton.

Gosberton, Tower vault

Climb up into the tower, and you’ll probably find a room from which the bells are rung, the ropes telling you that the bells are hanging above.

Gosberton, ringing chamber

But go on up, as I was able to do yesterday, and you might be able to step into the spire itself and discover this extraordinary sight, the walls stained by rainwater but otherwise unchanged in the 700 years since the masons took away the scaffolding.

Gosberton, inside the spire 2